That might seem an odd question, since the Proclamation of the Irish Republic is probably Ireland’s best-known historical document: and anyway, isn’t there only one?
The answer is both yes, and no.
Let’s start with the story behind the Proclamation, which is quite well known, but here’s a quick summary:
In the years since it was read aloud by P.H. Pearse outside Dublin’s GPO (and not from any non-existent steps) in 1916, the mere image of the Proclamation has become so commonplace that it’s now almost akin to Ireland’s “logo”. Composed mainly by Pearse, with significant contributions from Tom Clarke and James Connolly, the Proclamation has been called, among other names, “the foundation document of modern Irish Nationhood”, “the title deed of Irish republicanism”, or the Irish equivalent of the USA’s Declaration of Independence.
It was printed under armed guard in the basement of Dublin’s Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916. The original plan was to print 2,500 copies, but it’s thought that the final run was around 1,000. The process wasn’t easy, the printing press was old, the paper stock was poor quality, and the compositors didn’t have enough type to set the entire document at once, so it had to be done in two sections. And the pressure on the three men working on such a task—Michael Molloy, Liam O’Brien and Christopher Brady—must have been intense.
The document, measuring 30 x 20 inches (76 x 51 cm), was printed in (roughly) two halves, and this necessity resulted in one of the most interesting stories relating to the Proclamation. The first half was set and run through the press, then the second half was set, and the half-printed sheets were run through the press a second time.
This arrangement led to the creation of a rare set of documents called, unsurprisingly, “Half Proclamations”. During the rebellion, Liberty Hall was bombarded by the British, and when soldiers subsequently broke into the building (which was unoccupied all along), they found the printing press undamaged, and still set up with the second half of the type in place. So, being in the mood for souvenirs, they ran some sheets of paper through one end of the press, and an unknown number of Half Proclamations came out the other end. Most interestingly, given the circumstances of their creation, each Half Proclamation turned out quite different from the others, at different positions on the sheet, at odd angles, and so on.
So, even before the rebellion was fully over, there were already ‘different’ Proclamations in existence. Not only do we not know how many Half Proclamations were printed, but, of the 1,000 or so full Proclamations printed, we have no definitive answer to the question: How many still survive?
There are least nine copies held by public bodies, libraries and universities on the island of Ireland, including in Leinster House, the National Museum, the National Library, the GPO, TCD, and the Ulster Museum. A few copies exist outside Ireland, in both the UK and the USA. But the answer to the question of how many copies survive in private hands is even more vague, particularly since ‘new’ originals seem to turn up every now and again, before disappearing into the private collections of (very) wealthy collectors. (There’s a story told about a collector whose lifelong desire was to own a Proclamation, but he could never afford one. When his heirs were going through his books after his death, a folded document fell out of one: an original Proclamation. I’m sure there’s a moral for all collectors in there somewhere … .)
(By the way, I’m not even going to address the existence of ‘other’ Proclamations, all of which were created after the Rising – the Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook version; the 1917 Cumann na mBan reprint; the “’The Republic Still Lives” version;, the ‘Kansas’ version; the ‘Gill Sans’ version; etc.)
So there may be twenty, or there may be thirty, originals in private hands, it’s difficult to tell. What we can do, however, is track the public sales of original Proclamations, which won’t give us a definitive number, but will provide an estimate, as well as a handy guide to the document’s estimated value over the years!
Apart from surveying auction house sale results archives, I’ve also found two references to copies of the Proclamation being offered for sale very soon after the rebellion had been quashed.
One is from the collections of the Irish Architectural Archive. Roughly stuck to the front of a copy of the Irish War News (which sort of accidently ended up in their collection), there’s a small, but very interesting, newspaper clipping which mentions that “A copy of the proclamation of the Provisional Government issued by the Dublin rebels last Easter Monday was sold in the Dublin auction rooms on Saturday for £7”. Although the clipping is undated, the phrase “last Easter Monday” appears to pin the publication date at somewhere in 1916, possibly soon after the rebellion ended.
The other early reference is in an account of the Rising published very soon after the surrender: The Irish Rebellion: What Happened—And Why, by Canadian war correspondent, F.A. McKenzie. In the aftermath of the fighting, McKenzie wrote: “I saw a few trophies in North Quay Station, gathered during the fighting. On the wall hung a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Men said that it was the only copy left out of official hands, and that it was already valued at £250.”
If it had really been the last private copy available, then it may well have been worth £250 (about £23,000 today), however, as the sale notice clipping above confirms, and as many an auctioneer fears, there’s all too often a large gap between valuation and sale! And by 1966, a Hodges Figgis catalogue was offering a Proclamation for £525 (£10,000 today). Below is a list (not exhaustive) of sales prices for Proclamations over the last few decades. There are 24 here, and while some are probably re-sales of the same copies, we can safely say there are approximately twenty copies of the Proclamation in private circulation … that we know of.
So, between public and private copies, we can estimate that there are around 30 original copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in existence, 105 years after they were printed. Each one has something that makes it unique—a signature, a tear, a stain, a famous previous owner, something. There are probably fewer still Half Proclamations out there, and each of them is also unique.
And so we return to the question: Do you have a favourite Proclamation?
Well I do, but my personal favourite isn’t one of the thirty or so copies that survive intact. Neither is it one of the surviving Half Proclamations (although I do find them particularly interesting).
In fact my favourite Proclamation is barely recognisable as the historic document it is, I call it the Broken Proclamation. It comprises six oddly shaped fragments of paper, stuck to an A4 sheet, with a handwritten note on the front which says:
“Fragments of the Irish Republican Poster pasted on the wall of the G.P.O. Dublin. April 24th 1916.
G.P.O. Burned April 28th 1916.”
On the back, in different handwriting, another note says:
“These fragments were removed by Mr. M.S. Dudley Westropp & pasted on this piece of paper. He gave it to me
some years ago. [F.S.] Boucher. 1953″
And so these fragments tell a bigger story than almost any other Proclamation still in existence. This is a Proclamation that we can place in history. We know a rebel got it from a pile of printed sheets and pasted it to a wall of the GPO at the very start of the Rising. We know that it bore witness to the momentous events on Sackville/O’Connell Street during Easter Week, including the evacuation of the rebels as the GPO was being consumed by flames. And we know that what remained of this Proclamation when the fires had been extinguished was carefully removed by M.S. Dudley Westropp and saved for posterity.
In 1916, Michael Seymour Dudley Westropp would have been 48, and well advanced in what would become a long career with the National Museum, including a role as Keeper of the Art Division and the author of works on gold, silver and glass in the Museum’s art collections.
After the collapse of the rebellion and the surrender of the rebels, Dublin city quickly filled with souvenir hunters, who searched through ruins for mementoes of that most historic week, and, knowing what we do of Westropp, it isn’t surprising that one reward for his souvenir hunt was a half-dozen odd scraps of paper, which he removed from a wall of the burnt-out shell of the GPO.
Based on their positioning, relative to a complete Proclamation, it’s likely that whoever stuck the six fragments onto the smaller sheet of paper had a good idea of which piece went where, so it’s a reasonable assumption that it was Westropp himself who pasted them down. And while we can probably also thank him for the annotation which explains where he obtained the fragments, we should also be grateful to the (as yet unknown) F.S. Boucher, who added his important note to the back of the sheet, letting us know who had collected the fragments.
And then, thirty years ago, during the 75th anniversary year of the Rising, this Broken Proclamation was donated to UCD Archives, where, despite Westropp’s vague “Irish Republican Poster” label, it was instantly recognisable for what it really was. Nevertheless, just to make it fully clear, here I’ve digitally overlaid each of the six fragments onto a copy of a full Proclamation, so we can see how they would have appeared to Westropp on the wall of the burnt-out GPO, 105 years ago.
The result, to me, proves the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and also explains why UCD Archive’s Broken Proclamation is my favourite Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Knowing the history behind the fragments, as soon as I’d completed the digital overlay, the Broken Proclamation was, metaphorically, whole again, forming a single picture. Suddenly, an image which was so ubiquitous that it was taken for granted, had been refreshed, its importance reiterated, its talismanic quality renewed.
- This post was researched and written by Mick O’Farrell, author on 1916, and collector of Easter Rising-related publications.
A list of sales prices for Proclamations between 1916 and June 2021 (not exhaustive)
1916: £7 (£625 today)
1966: £525 (£10,000 today) – Hodges Figgis catalogue
1998: £26,000 – Mealy’s
2001: £52,000 – Whyte’s
2003: £69,600 – Sotheby’s
2004: £168,000 – Sotheby’s
2004: 123,2000 – Sotheby’s
2004: €390,000 – Adam’s
2005: €125,000 – Whyte’s; (Half Proclamation: €8,000
2006: €200,000 – Adam’s; Half Proclamation: €22,000
2007: €240,000 – Adam’s; Half Proclamation: €7,500
2008: €360,000 – Adam’s
2009: €220,000 – Adam’s
2011: €55,000 – Mealy’s (damaged)
2012: €100,000 – Adam’s
2013: €96,000 – Adam’s
2014: €90,000 – Adam’s; Half Proclamation: €5,600 – Whyte’s
2015: £305,000 – Sotheby’s
2016: €150,000 – Adam’s
2016: €185,000 Whyte’s; Half Proclamation: €8,000
2017: €120,000 – Adam’s
2017: Half Proclamation £6,875 – Sotheby’s
2019: £60,000 – Sotheby’s
2020: €190,000 – Whyte’s (Half Proclamation: €4,200)
2021: €170,000 – Adam’s
Sources / References
A huge amount has been written about the Proclamation – countless articles and at least six dedicated books or booklets. Here’s a selection:The Easter Proclamation 1916 – a comparative analysis, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997 – Liam de Paor.
The Easter Proclamation 1916, The Dolmen Press Ltd, Dublin, 1975.
Cherish, cherish, cherish – Reflections on the 1916 Proclamation, Cork City Council, Cork, 2016 – Hugo Hamilton; Leanne O’Sullivan; Theo Dargan; Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
Proclamation of the Irish Republic – The title deed of Irish republicanism, National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 2017 – Michael Kenny.
The Story of the 1916 Proclamation, Abbey Books, Dublin, 1986 – John O’Connor.
Poblacht Na H-Eireann – The Easter Rising Proclamation – Ireland 1916, Occasional Nuggets from the Providence Public Library, Issue No. One, Spring 2010, Providence Public Library Special Collections, Providence, 2010.
The Rising of 1916 and The Struggle for Independence, Catalogue 20, Hodges Figgis & Co Ltd, 1966.
Irish Architectural Archive: https://iarc.ie/irish-war-news/
Typefoundry – The image of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1916: http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2010/01/image-of-proclamation-of-irish-republic.html